Beverly Willis was a pioneering architect whose influence helped break gender norms in the industry, co-founding the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and designing a number of notable landmarks.
Beverly Willis’ legacy
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Willis did not have much interest in architecture when she was a child. Instead, she wanted to fly. She learned to pilot aircraft at 15, hoping to qualify for the Women’s Air Service during World War II. Willis ended up volunteering for the Civil Air Patrol and reached the rank of lieutenant.
After studying aeronautical engineering at Oregon State University and art at the University of Hawaiʻi, however, her life took a different path. Her studies changed her perspective on architecture, seeing it as an arena in which art intersected with everyday living. After graduating from the University of Hawai’i, she created murals and frescos under the tutelage of Jean Charlot, gaining an appreciation for the natural geometry of plants, flowers, and other wildlife that would come to characterize her later designs. In 1958, she launched Beverly Willis Architects. Over the next three decades, she became an influential designer on the West Coast, with a major focus on making buildings feel natural and functional, while still being beautiful. She innovated with adaptive reuse techniques, the use of new technology, and more.
Willis’ notable designs include the Manhattan Village Academy in New York City, the San Francisco Ballet Building, the Margaret S. Hayward Playground Building and Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, and the Robertson Residence in Yountville, California, among many others. She also designed the Shell Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hilton that appeared as a backdrop in the TV series “Hawaiian Eye.”
Willis received dozens of awards, honors, and more, including an AIA New York Visionary Award, a Lawrence Orton Award for Excellence in City and Regional Planning, a National Association of Home Builders Merit Award, and an Award for Exceptional Distinction for Environmental Design. She was also an ardent philanthropist, creating the Architecture Research Institute think tank, and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which recognizes women’s contributions to the field.
“Once, I hired an architect and I critiqued his design work. He sort of snarled at me and responded, in so many words, ‘If you think you are so smart, why don’t you become an architect.’ I saw that challenge as an interesting one. It opened my eyes to the possibility of becoming an architect.”—Madame Architect, January 2023
Tributes to Beverly Willis
Full obituary: The New York Times